Entering 2014 season, Cajuns football has been a runaway success

What a difference a few years makes.

On the first day of 2014 preseason camp, Ragin’ Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth recalled his first media day experience, when a reporter asked him what it felt like to be ranked dead last in the NCAA.

He didn’t feel too great about it then, but after three straight 9-4 seasons and three straight New Orleans Bowl championships, he can look back on that day fondly and remark on how far his program has come.

Three years later, the rankings the reporters are asking him about concern the Top 25.

“We feel like this is the deepest team that we’ve had to date,” Hudspeth said.

Broadway headlines offense

It all starts with senior quarterback Terrance Broadway, who is entering his final season as the leader of the offense. Broadway was named the preseason Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for 2,419 yards and 19 touchdowns in 12 games a year ago.

Broadway suffered a broken arm late in the 2013 regular season but made it back for the New Orleans Bowl win against Tulane. With him now fully healed, the Cajuns are excited by the possibilities Broadway presents.

“You look at every level of football … guys that win, guys that are successful have to have a signal-caller that makes plays and gets it done,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said. “(Broadway) has shown that. He had a little adversity at the end of the year but came back and fought through a tough bowl game to have a tremendous offseason.”

Broadway has a talented array of weapons at his disposal.

Senior Alonzo Harris and sophomore Elijah McGuire team up to form a formidable one-two punch in the backfield, combining to rack up more than 2,200 all-purpose yards and 25 touchdowns last season.

The speedy McGuire served as the home run threat in his true freshman year, averaging better than 8 yards per carry. But McGuire beefed up in the offseason, hoping the added weight helps his durability as the year progresses.

“I think I’m going to be able to take a little more of a pounding than I was able to last year,” McGuire said. “Taking the pounding last year when not weighing that much was kind of hard for me.”

If McGuire is the backfield’s sports car, Harris is the bulldozer. The 238-pound senior specializes in breaking tackles and has been a reliable go-to man since his arrival on campus in 2011.

After rushing for 700 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman, Harris increased his yardage and touchdown totals in each of his three seasons, though that’ll be hard to match after last year’s 942-yard, 14-touchdown performance.

There is some turnover at wide receiver, but Broadway will still have his safety valve in senior Jamal Robinson, last year’s leading receiver. Junior Al Riles moved from the defensive side to work in the slot, and senior James Butler will work opposite Robinson.

Junior college transfer C.J. Bates, freshman Gabe Fuselier and sophomores Devin Scott and Jared Johnson will provide solid depth.

The Cajuns return four starters on the offensive line, and all five of the projected starters are upperclassmen. Senior Terry Johnson is moving from left guard to center to replace graduated Andre Huval and make room for junior college guard Donovan Williams, who has turned heads in fall camp.

Defense seeks more strides

The Cajuns hope an added offseason under defensive coordinator James Willis yields better results. The Cajuns struggled at the start of last season as they learned the ropes of Willis’ system but improved as the year progressed.

“Last year we had to find out who we were as far as position and as far as scheme,” Willis said. “We found that, we found our niche and our groove, and our kids understand the system now. That allows us to be more versatile, more multiple. … We’ll be able to do more within our packages because of that knowledge of the system.”

The Cajuns return most of last season’s defense, including multiple seniors on the line and in the backfield, and they have three preseason SBC first-teamers: defensive tackle Justin Hamilton, linebacker Dominique Tovell and safety Trevence Patt. Hudspeth and Willis have said they like their depth at every position defensively.

Nonconference tests ahead

The schedule presents some unique challenges this season. The Cajuns will have to test their mettle in tough nonconference, road games against Boise State (Sept. 13) — which, just like Hudspeth is trying to achieve, carved a respected reputation outside the major conference — and Ole Miss (Sept. 20) in back-to-back weeks. How they fare in those contests might determine whether the Ragin’ Cajuns can become the first team in SBC history to be ranked in the Top 25.

This also marks the first season in Hudspeth’s tenure the team has had six home games, which gives the team an equal home and away schedule rather than having to play two more games on the road than at home.

They’ll be playing those home games in a redesigned Cajun Field this season, a by-product of Hudspeth’s success since he took over a program that had seen better days.

Now the challenge is to keep making it better.

“We like our team, we like our players, we like our depth — but that doesn’t always mean you’re going to have a great year,” Hudspeth said. “Now, it’s our job to put the pieces together to form this puzzle.

“I really like the pieces that we have.”